A Brief Note on Anti-Semitism – The Church Against the Jews

Christianity Becomes the Official Religion of Rome

Before the end of the 1st century, the Roman authorities recognized Christianity as a separate religion from Judaism. They were granted an exemption from paying the Fiscus Iudaicus, the annual tax upon the Jews. Since paying taxes had been one of the ways that Jews demonstrated their goodwill and loyalty toward the Empire, Christians had to negotiate their own alternatives however their refusal to worship the Roman gods or to pay homage to the emperor as divine resulted at times in persecution and martyrdom.

Christianity spread, especially in the eastern parts of the Empire and beyond its border; in the west it was at first relatively limited, but significant Christian communities emerged in Rome, Carthage, and other urban centers, becoming by the end of the 3rd century the dominant faith in some of them. Christians accounted for approximately 10% of the Roman population by 300. In 301, the Kingdom of Armenia, which Rome considered de jure a client kingdom, became the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state church.

In 313, Emperor Constantine granted Christians and others “the right of open and free observance of their worship”. In 330, Constantine established the city of Constantinople as the new capital of the Roman Empire. The city would gradually come to be seen as the intellectual and cultural center of the Christian world.Though Constantine was the first Emperor that became Christian, it was not 40 years after his death that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire Theodosius I (circa A.D. 280 to 337) was the first emperor to decree that all citizens should be Christian. He was also the last ruler to preside over a united Eastern and Western Roman Empire.

Theodosius took active steps to Christianize the Empire. The Jews were affected. One of the edicts that he issued banned of the Sanhedrin. As a consequence, the rabbis were faced with a situation that festivals and fast days could be celebrated on different days throughout the Diaspora and by the small group of Jews remaining Palestine. A uniform calendar was officially adopted circa 415 CE.

The Jews in Christendom

The view of Judaism in Catholic Christianity was almost entirely negative in the first four centuries of the Christian era, and many orthodox Fathers supported the notion that St. Paul frankly opposed Judaism and flatly rejected everything about it. The general idea was that Judaism was too carnal with its concerns for conduct under the Mosaic Law and its gross blood sacrifices. It did not seem spiritual enough. It was only because of their stiff-necked refusal to read their own prophetic books that the Jews failed to recognize Christ in them. As such, continuing to profess Judaism was seen to be a direct attack on Christ. The New Testament had claimed that the Jews in Jerusalem had been responsible for Jesus’ death.

Jews were either “tolerated” or “vilified” in the rapidly standing Christian realm. Indeed, this was a pattern that existed through to the Enlightenment and particularly to reforms instituted by Napoleon.

The Teachings of St. Augustine

When Christianity succeeded in becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, Christians wielded political power for the first time. It became necessary to develop not only an apologetic but also a politically viable strategy for dealing with the Jews, who were found in large numbers throughout the empire. A new paradigm for Jewish-Christian relations was developed by the man who is without doubt the greatest theological mind of the first Christian millennium: St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in the early fifth century.

St. Augustine (354-430) was an early Christian theologian and philosopher whose writings influenced the development Western Christianity and Western philosophy. Among his most important works are City of God and Confessions.

Augustine was of the view that dispersion of the Jews was a fulfilment of biblical prophecy. He rejected homicidal attitudes that some Church Fathers were promoting. He believed that the Jewish people would be converted to Christianity at “the end of time” and argued that the Jews should be allowed to survive their dispersion as a warning to Christians. The “miserable” conditions in which lived [or forced to live] bore witness to their punishment for rejecting Jesus. Some scholars have suggested that founded the school that taught that Christians should allow the Jews to “survive but not thrive. Also, Augustine did not reject rather respected the Torah and its laws to be good and were intended to help understand the teachings of the Christ.

While Augustine constructed a “positive attitude towards the Jews, there was also a “negative attitude” that rejected Jews and called for their persecution. A prime example is St. John Chrysostom (349 – 407).

The Preachings of St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom was the Archbishop of Constantinople. He was known for his preaching and public speaking. His homilies were viciously anti-Jewish. The historian James Parkes called his writings on Jews “the most horrible and violent denunciations of Judaism to be found in the writings of a Christian theologian”. His sermons against the Jews gave momentum to the idea that Jews bore a collective responsibility for the death of Jesus. Another historian, Steven Katz, argues that the homilies marked a “decisive turn in the history of Christian anti-Judaic a turn’s ultimate disfiguring consequence was enacted in the political anti-Semitism of Adolph Hitler”. These sermons were called “Adversus Judeous” in Latin and Against the Jews in English.

In his sermons Chrysostom held Jews responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus and deicide, and added that they continued to rejoice in Jesus’ death. He compared the synagogue to a pagan temple, representing it as the source of all vices and heresies. He described it as a place worse than a brothel and a drinking shop; it was a den of scoundrels, the repair of wild beasts, a temple of demons, the refuge of brigands and debauchees, and the cavern of devils, a criminal assembly of the assassins of Christ. He declared that he hated both the synagogue and the Jews, saying that demons dwell in the synagogue and also in the souls of the Jews, and describing them as growing fit for slaughter.

British historian Paul Johnson argues that Chrysostom’s homilies “became the pattern for anti-Jewish tirades, making the fullest possible use (and misuse) of key passages in the gospels of Saints Matthew and John. Thus a specifically Christian anti-Semitism, presenting the Jews as murderers of Christ, was grafted on to the seething mass of pagan smears and rumours, and Jewish communities were now at risk in every Christian city”. During World War II, the Nazis used his works in an attempt to legitimize the Holocaust in the eyes of German and Austrian Christians

Chrysostom’s Homilies Adversus Judaeous

  • [T]he Jewish people were driven by their drunkenness and plumpness to the ultimate evil; they kicked about, they failed to accept the yoke of Christ, nor did they pull the plow of his teaching. Another prophet hinted at this when he said: “Israel is as obstinate as a stubborn heifer.” … Although such beasts are unfit for work, they are fit for killing. And this is what happened to the Jews: while they were making themselves unfit for work, they grew fit for slaughter. This is why Christ said: “But as for these my enemies, who did not want me to be king over them, bring them here and slay them.” (Luke 19:27)
    • Eight Homilies Against the Jews, Homily 1
  • Before they committed the crime of crimes, before they killed their Master, before the cross, before the slaying of Christ, [Jewish sacrifices were] an abomination.
    • Eight Homilies Against the Jews, Homily 1
  • The festivals of the pitiful and miserable Jews are soon to march upon us one after the other and in quick succession …
    •  Eight Homilies Against the Jews Homily 1
  • Nothing is more miserable than those people who never failed to attack their own salvation. When there was need to observe the Law, they trampled it under foot. … On this account Stephen said: “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart, you always resist the Holy Spirit”, not only by transgressing the Law but also by wishing to observe it at the wrong time.
    • Eight Homilies Against the Jews, Homily 1
  • You [Jews] did slay Christ, you did lift violent hands against the Master, you did spill his precious blood. This is why you have no chance for atonement, excuse, or defense.
    • Eight Homilies Against the Jews Homily 6
  • The Jews are enduring their present troubles because of Christ.

Eight Homilies Against the Jews, Homily 6

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